Monday, August 6, 2007

Tortilla Soup

I’m on a Tex-Mex kick. When you’re out of your home, your state, and you’re surrounded by people who think that queso is just Spanish for cheese, you want to educate. At least I do. And I want to show and teach them as much as I can about real Texas food. In my mind this includes three main food groups, with a few exceptions: 1. Mexican/Tex-Mex, 2. barbeque, 3. southern. It can vary depending who you talk to, and only just recently is there emerging a difference between Tex-Mex and Mexican, with places trying to stand out as being ‘interior Mexican’, but I think this makes them no better or worse than Tex-Mex. Also, if you’re from Austin, you don’t call Mexican food Tex-Mex. I think Tex-Mex is a special name developed by outsiders to describe the difference between Texas Mexican and Mexican Mexican. If I’m with my friends, we definitely don’t say “I feel like Tex-Mex tonight.” With us, it’s straight up “Mexican.”

I’m from Austin, I hold a special place in my heart for Tex-Mex, which is just Mexican, taken down to a few more specific dishes, and given a Texas twist. For those of you who don’t know what real queso is, it is not just cheese, nor is it ‘cheese dip’ as other parts of the United States refer to it. It is yellow cheese, melted with any number of the following: peppers (spiciness depends on where you go and who’s making it), onions, tomatoes, and garlic. Now this is the most basic queso. You can also go to places where they have add-ons, like ground beef and avocados, or if you’re really lucky and you go to El Arroyo, brisket. It is to be eaten with chips (tortilla chips is understood), or occasionally tortillas, and can be poured on most dishes, enchiladas, burritos, take your pick. Queso is Tex-Mex. And I love it.

Before I go on forever about the merits of queso, let me say I’ve never made it here in Barcelona because good yellow cheese is hard to find. Good cheese, not hard. Spain, and the Mediterranean for that matter, has good cheese galore. But it’s not yellow cheese, we’re talking American, Cheddar, Jack, or in extreme cases, Velveeta. Therefore it is not acceptable for queso.

To inform Dan about the great cuisine that is Tex-Mex I have to make other stuff, like tortilla soup. I wouldn’t call this specifically Tex-Mex. I remember the first time I went to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and we stayed in a house with a Mexican cook who made us lunch and dinner everyday. She served fresh tortilla soup and it was great. I don’t even like soup that much, but this stuff is good.

So, in an attempt to bring Mexican to Spain, I made tortilla soup for the first time. I looked at a lot of recipes on the internet from all different sources, wrote down the basics, and then threw in whatever else I thought would make it gooooood.

Tortilla soup

1 package corn tortillas
oil for frying (regular vegetable oil will work)

olive oil or xistorra grease (grease leftover from cooking sausage or meats)
1 medium white onion
1-3 canned chipotle chiles (canned in Adobo sauce)
1 liter chicken broth
1 can of diced tomatoes
2 fresh tomatoes
1 serrano/jalapeño

1 avocado
queso fresco (if you can find it) or feta (what I use)

Tortilla soup is basically spicy tomato soup, what makes it so much better are the toppings, so you have to make sure they’re good. The first topping is tortilla chips, but store bought ones don’t begin to compare to homemade ones, that’s key to great tortilla soup.
Start off by heating ½ - 1 inch of oil in a medium-sized pan over medium-high heat. This doesn’t have to be super specific on temperature, I just sprinkle water on the grease and when it’s hot, it pops. That’s when you know to add the tortilla. So while your oil is heating, take the corn tortillas and cut them in half and then into strips. Do as many as you like, they’re just garnish on top, but there’s nothing wrong with leftover homemade chips. When a sprinkle of water pops in the oil, add a few strips at a time, not too many crowding the pan, otherwise they’ll stick. If they fall on top of each other, just separate with a fork. They cook pretty quickly, maybe a minute or less on each side, until they’re golden, but not too browned because they seem to cook a little more after you take them out. So after a minute or so, flip to the other side. Then drain on a paper towel, removing them with a fork or slotted spoon and immediately sprinkle with salt, so it sticks. And you have your chips.
Now you can start on the soup itself. Chop the onion into little dices, and heat up the grease. Put in the onion when it’s hot, and let it cook for about 10 minutes on medium heat, until the onion has just begun to soften. Take your can of chipotle chiles. Now these are hot, so depending on how much heat you can handle, throw in a few, along with some spoonfuls of the adobo sauce.

I put in maybe one and a half chiles, and strangely, I could’ve handled a little more spice, but it still burned a bit going down. As you stir these around with the onions, break them up just with the tip of a wooden spoon. After a minute or two, you can begin to add the chicken broth, just about an inch or two up the sides of the pot each time, letting it cook down with the flavors.

After the first addition of chicken broth cooks down, add the can of tomatoes and stir. Salt and pepper.
A good thing about this soup is it doesn’t have to be exact. Just pour in a bit of broth every 5 minutes or so, give it a stir, and you should end up with some good soup.
To give it a fresh, slightly spicy flavor, I like to add a serrano pepper. Cut in half and then de-vein and de-seed (or save those for those more spicy-tolerant). After, cut into strips and then chop finely. Throw this in along with one of the batches of broths.

Also while you wait for the soup to cook down, prepare the toppings. Tortilla strips: done. Now chop the two fresh tomatoes. Then the avocado into long slices. Roll some limes under your palm and cut in half. Chop the cilantro. Crumble the cheese.
When you’ve added all the chicken broth, your soup is a nice balance of liquid and solids, and the last bit of broth has cooked down for about five minutes, turn the heat off. Throw in the fresh tomatoes and give it one last, good stir. Salt and pepper if needed.
To serve, spoon the soup into a bowl. Put on the toppings: tortilla strips, cheese, avocado, cilantro, and a generous squirt of lime all around. Preferably, it should be eaten with a margarita, but it’s not necessary.

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